Cooking with coconut oil – the healthful benefits that everyone should know about
Coconut oil is a great additive to almost any kind of diet; it is packed with nutrients that help maintain a healthy body. The exotic flavor gives your food a tropical kick with a hint of sweetness, suitable for both sweet and savory dishes such as smoothies, soups, curries, salads, baked goods, stir-fries and desserts.
This oil goes easily between solid and liquid and back according to the temperature, which makes it a great base for home-made candies, fudges and other desserts.
Even if you aren’t big on the coconut flavor, you can use a good quality refined coconut oil with a neutral taste and still get much of the goodness.
But one of the most important coconut oil health benefits is that it’s a very heat-stable fat, which makes it the healthiest choice for (high temperature) cooking.
Fat – good for you or bad?
There is a lot of contradicting information out there about what healthy fats are.
Some people believe that healthy fat should contain as little fat as possible. Or that all saturated fat is unhealthy. Others on the other hand follow a diet high in fats such as the Keto diet.
Most food contains some sort of fat. Some is good for you and others are not but our body can simply not exist without fat.
We need it for energy, for our brain to function properly, for healthy skin, cells, organs, hormone production, to help transport and absorb fat-soluble nutrients and to protect us from heart disease.
To understand which fats are good for us and which not we need to understand not only what the nutritious value and fat percentage are, but how an oil is produced and how sensitive it is to oxidation. More about that in a bit.
There are 4 types of fat: monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, saturated fats and trans fats.
The first 3 types of fat are naturally found in different types of food and oils from plant sources and some from animal sources.
Trans fats are the results of chemical processing and are found in many processed foods, particularly in junk food. You’ll recognize them by the label ”(partially) hydrogenated”. These fats are very unhealthy for all sorts of health related reasons and are best avoided.
Coconut oil consists of 92% saturated fat. That’s a lot but plant-based saturated fats are different from saturated fats from animal sources. Plus the specific type of saturated fats in coconut oil are actually very healthy. More about that in a bit.
To get a full understanding of what makes a fat (un)healthy, we also need to look into what happens to it when you heat it. This is related to oxidation and very important, as it can turn an otherwise healthy fat into an unhealthy one.
Oxidation is a chemical reaction resulting from heat, light and oxygen that changes the chemical properties of an oil. This results in harmful free radicals that can cause serious damage to our body.
Every oil oxidizes at some point, the key its use oils that are heat-stable so they don’t oxidize easily.
One of the main health benefits of cooking with coconut oil is that its high concentration of saturated fats makes it a very heat-stable fat that protects against oxidation and free radicals.
Back to why saturated fats in coconut oil are so good for us.
Unlike other saturated fats which consist of fatty acids called long triglycerides, coconut oil is packed with MCT’s -Medium Chain Triglycerides- fatty acids which are easily absorbed by the body.
Lauric acid, the most important one, forms about 50% of the MCT’s in coconut oil and the rest comprises of caprylic acid and capric acid.
The list of health benefits that the MCT’s in coconut oil provide is nothing short of impressive.
Instead of being stored in the gall bladder, MCT’s are metabolized in the liver and used as an immediate energy source. The rest of the MCT’s converts into ketones which are literally brain food and also fuel for our heart and muscles.
As MCT’s are not stored in the body and help with metabolism, they can actually burn fat and help with weight control.
Green Med Info has a lot of interesting information about science-based coconut oil health benefits.
The abundance of antiviral, antimicrobial, antifungal and antiparasitic properties in MCT’s destroy viruses, bacteria and fungus in our body and help to detoxify it.
They also help absorb fat-soluble vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants such as vitamins A, D, E and K.
Interestingly enough, coconuts are the main plant-based natural source of lauric acid – another essential source of lauric acid is found in breast milk!
More about cooking oils, the different types of fat and oxidation in this article about how to choose a healthy cooking oil.